Ah, suburban ennui – it’s a tale as old as time itself (or at least as old as the work of John Cheever). Ever since couples and families starting migrating en masse to suburban developments, there have been writers and filmmakers, particularly in American independent films, lining up to explore the soul-deadening crush of life in the ‘burbs. And why not? The monotonous daily routines and particular set of social dynamics are enough to drive anyone a little mad.
At first, the protagonist in Dean Kapsalis’s debut The Swerve, Holly (Azura Skye), seems to be handling things relatively okay. Well, as okay as you can handle a tense and frequently absent husband and two bratty and rude adolescent sons. On top of holding her own job as a high school teacher, Holly naturally takes care of all the cleaning, cooking and child-rearing, while husband Rob (Bryce Pinkham) works long hours as the manager of a local grocery store, gunning for that all-important promotion.
But when her aimless mess of a younger sister (Ashley Bell) blows back into town, Holly slowly begins to lose her grip. She’s plagued by unpleasant dreams and paranoid thoughts – the pills that she usually takes to keep them at bay ceasing to have much of an effect. And did she actually run a couple of hooligans off the road while on a nighttime drive to clear her head? Or is it all a product of her deteriorating sanity?
It’s not too hard to see where all of this going, with Kapsalis going for a slow-burn of anxiety that will eventually result in a flurry of unexpected violence (which is entirely expected in these kinds of films by now). The existential bleakness of Jeanne Dielman is certainly a reference point here, as is the work of Lucrecia Martel, with the film serving as an almost quasi-remake of The Headless Woman in its mysterious road accident plotline. Distinctive Canadian composer Mark Korven (recently of The Witch and The Lighthouse) and cinematographer Daryl Pittman work overtime to create an evocative mood of hushed ominousness throughout. In The Swerve, there’s no doubt that things will not end well; rather, it’s about how bad they’ll actually get.
But if The Swerve can feel somewhat familiar, the central performance of Azura Skye lends the movie a gripping immediacy. Mainly relegated to supporting roles in unmemorable movies thus far in her career, Skye breaks out ferociously here, creating a scarily realistic portrayal of a psychological breakdown. So thin that she’s barely even there and sporting ever-present bags under her eyes, Skye’s Holly looks exhausted right from the start, as if she’s just been playing this part for years already. And as events spiral more and more out of her control, including an offside relationship with one of the students in her class, Skye keeps alternating between big and small moments, keeping us firmly locked into her viewpoint.
When the doozy of an ending finally come, Skye turns what could have easily come off as cheap and melodramatic into quietly devastating grand tragedy. It’s a performance that will truly haunt you for days.